Wilson Bridge
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The Wilson Bridge has become an important thoroughfare for moving goods into the Washington area. (By James M. Thresher – The Washington Post)

Also in This Package
Wilson Bridge: The Rush Hour of Decision
Drivers Expect No Quick Action
The Ups and Downs of the Bridge Tender's Day
Critics See 12-Lane Path to Destruction

Economy Crosses the Wilson on 18 Wheels

By Peter Behr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 1998; Page A22

Dick Bailey's big rig is doing 60 as it drops over a crest on the Capital Beltway headed west toward the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the Potomac. He's carrying 15,000 pounds of chicken breasts, broccoli, cut flowers and other grocery-cart fillers bound from Giant Food's Landover warehouse to one of its Springfield stores. As usual, he has plenty of company.

Surrounding Bailey are a rolling Yellow Pages of the East Coast's economy: trucks from Harbor Panel, United National Foods, Daniels and Son, Martini Inc., Perrier, Catoctin Mountain Grocers, Citywide Plumbing and Heating, Conway Transport, Itco Tire Co. and trucks bearing new cars, concrete and trash.

The Wilson Bridge, which takes the Capital Beltway over the Potomac, is a key span in the nation's distribution network, carrying more than $60 billion in truck cargo a year, a Department of Transportation survey shows.

The bridge's importance to the Washington region is even greater. It is the primary link between the region's historic warehouse and storage centers on the Potomac's east side and the region's fastest-growing communities on the west.

Of 28,500 trucks that use the Wilson Bridge on an average day, two out of three are bringing goods into or out of the Washington area, researchers estimate.

If the deteriorating bridge has not been replaced by 2004, highway engineers warn, it will have to be closed to trucks weighing more than 20,000 pounds to prevent irreparable damage.

Such a closing would send an estimated 13,000 more trucks a day – many of them tractor-trailers – through the District or around the Beltway via the American Legion Bridge, compounding traffic problems that already rank among the nation's worst. Many of the trucks would be on those roads at rush hour; currently, four of 10 trucks crossing the Wilson Bridge do so during rush hour, surveys show.

"The ramifications would be fairly devastating," said Thomas M. Corsi, a professor of logistics and transportation planning at the University of Maryland at College Park. In an area where 70 percent of all goods move by truck, delivery costs would escalate, leading to higher prices for consumers and thinner profits for shippers and their customers.

The convergence of truckers and commuters on key arteries such as New York Avenue and the 14th Street Bridge would produce widespread gridlock, Corsi predicted.

Apart from the frustration and wasted time inflicted on motorists, delays would throw schedules out of kilter for many truckers and businesses.

If delivery times grew by half because the Wilson Bridge was closed to truckers, shippers' costs could increase by $1 billion annually, taking into account drivers' wages, fuel and vehicle wear, according to figures Corsi's team developed for a Greater Washington Board of Trade traffic study.

Higher shipping costs eventually would be passed on to consumers and, like a new tax, would take away money they would choose to spend in other ways, notes George Mason University regional analyst Stephen S. Fuller.

A morning delivery run with Bailey, the Giant driver, provides a primer on how small disruptions in the movement of goods can multiply.

The truth is that Bailey – who started trucking after two tours in the Vietnam War – doesn't mind the challenge of a little traffic congestion. Call it salsa on the day's bread.

As hundreds of taillights blink red ahead of him, signaling a typical rush-hour slowdown at the Wilson Bridge entrance, he is already looking for openings in the traffic for his 40-footer, shifting to a faster-moving lane. "I'm not trying to offend anyone. But I have to get somewhere," Bailey says.

The thought of getting somewhere in Virginia without the Wilson Bridge, however, makes him wince.

He's done it before when snowstorms or breakdowns have closed the old drawbridge, forcing him to enter the District and cross into Virginia over the 14th Street Bridge. What's normally a 45-minute trip can take two or three times as long.

Waiting for Bailey at Giant's supermarket in residential Springfield on this day is John Hawes, the store receiver. A lengthy delay could mean that the three or four employees scheduled to unload Bailey's trailer would be sitting around with nothing to do, he says.

But that's not all, adds Hawes, looking inside Bailey's cavernous truck. "If you route this through D.C., there's more traffic, more lights, more shifts and stops, more damage." A deep pothole can send a case of milk or orange juice into low orbit, painting the truck floor, sides and contents and adding costly cleanup time to the day's work, he says.

"It comes down to money, and somewhere along the line, that gets passed on to consumers," Hawes says.

Bigger stores and restaurants with plenty of storage space could adjust for later deliveries. Not so some smaller proprietors.

Julie Rossler, manager of the Celebrity Deli in Arlington, depends on twice-weekly deliveries from Saval Foods Corp., which produces and delivers cold cuts, dairy products and other deli items from its Dorsey, Md., headquarters along Interstate 95.

"They usually come very early, Thursday and Monday morning at 8 a.m. If they're late, I do freak out," she said.

Late deliveries could be a lot less rare if the Wilson Bridge shuts down for trucks. Saval requires 17 trucks to make deli deliveries throughout the region and sends a dozen shipments over the bridge every week to serve customers in Virginia. Its drivers make 15 to 30 stops each day.

If the Wilson Bridge were restricted, the company's Virginia-bound trucks probably would go through the District, said Paul Saval, chief operating officer of Saval Foods.

"The D.C. road system is a bottleneck right now," Saval said. "It would be very difficult to figure out which trucks would go where. That would be much more costly for us, and it would cause havoc in an already crowded system."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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